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Sunday, June 5, 2011

Three Decades of David: How the Dr. Pepper Pitchman Became a Horror Icon

If at least part of your childhood was spent in the 1970s, as mine was, then you probably remember those ubiquitous commercials for Dr. Pepper, in which a handsome young man led a crowd of dancers through the streets, in Pied-Piper fashion, all the while singing the catchy jingle, "I'm a Pepper." It was as much a part of the era as G.E.'s "We Bring Good Things to Life," and of course, McDonald's "You Deserve a Break Today" (both written by Barry Manilow, incidentally).

However, if you were under a proverbial rock back then, or more likely if you were not yet a twinkle in your mommy and daddy's eyes, then here's a little reminder:

Chances are, if you're reading this blog, that even if you're too young to remember those old school Dr. Pepper commercials, you definitely recognize that handsome young man. That's because he's David Naughton, who would very soon thereafter rise to horror immortality in a starring role in John Landis' classic An American Werewolf in London.

It was certainly a most unorthodox career path, and definitely not one Naughton expected to embark upon when moving to New York City to find stage work after graduating from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. At age 24, he landed his first dramatic role in the 1975 production of Hamlet at Lincoln Center, starring Sam Waterston and directed by Joseph Papp. However, he probably had an idea that his career had some unexpected things in store for him when not long after, he scored his first screen role--an appearance on the Planet of the Apes TV series.

However, it would be the following year that Naughton would land the part that would literally make him a recognizable star. And it was not a play, nor a movie, nor a TV show, but a soda commercial. Dr. Pepper was launching a brand-new campaign designed to convert people over to Pepper drinkers, and they were looking for a charismatic, fresh face around which to build it. The role required a lot of dancing, which gave Naughton pause when his agent initially made him aware of the project.

Intimidated by the sheer number of New York-area dancers who'd surely turn up for the auditions, Naughton showed up nevertheless. And got the part. Over the next four years, he would become one of the most well-known actors in American TV commercials, dancing and singing his way into the homes of millions, all the while extolling the virtues of Dr. Pepper.

"I don't understand actors who would rather work as bill collectors than try for a commercial," Naughton said in a 1981 interview with People magazine. "If I had been a purist, I'd still be waiting on tables. Dr Pepper opened Hollywood for me."

That statement was indeed an accurate one. It was while out in California doing public appearances for Dr. Pepper that another project came on Naughton's radar. Apparently, John Landis, the guy who made The Blues Brothers and Animal House, was getting to work on a horror comedy about werewolves. As the story goes, Landis and his wife Deborah were both avid Pepper lovers, and Deborah in particular was a big fan of Naughton from the TV ads. An interview was set up, and Naughton didn't even need to audition before being offered the starring role.

In addition to the Pepper commercials, Landis was also impressed with the fact that Naughton had lived in England, and had gone across Britain on a bicycle, since the film took place in England, and would involve Naughton's character, the doomed David Kessler, backpacking across the English countryside. It's also very possible that Naughton's very wholesome image, cultivated from the commercials, lent a certain shock value to the role that appealed to Landis.

Whatever the reasons in the end, Naughton was the perfect choice for Kessler. The film was a hit, grossing $19 million in its first month--quite a feat for a horror film in 1981--and finally attaching a name to the face and voice that millions of Americans already knew. David Naughton was now a bona fide star, and even if he arguably never quite surpassed An American Werewolf in London in his subsequent career, the film earned him a permanent place in the hearts of horror fans the world over. Certainly not something the former face of Dr. Pepper would have ever envisioned.

"I used to have people dance up to me in airports singing, 'I'm a Pepper, you're a Pepper,' " said Naughton to People. "Now they look at me and start baying at the moon."


Girl on Gore said...

I adore the man!

ZedWord said...

I knew he did this commercial, I knew of the cultural impact of the commercial, I even knew the lyrics to the commercial, but not until today did I ever think of watching the commercial.

Thanks for that!

B-Sol said...

Oh wow, it was such a memorable ad in its day! I remember seeing it constantly as a kid. Happy to pass it along!

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